Reference address :

ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Athos Holy Mount

Portable Icons
2.59 The Nativity
Stavronikita Monastery
Wood, egg tempera, 53 x 34 cm
Cretan School. Theophanis the Cretan


The Original New Testament

In this icon of the Nativity, which has been reduced in width, the composition is dominated by the rocky cave, which towers, flamelike, over everything else. In the centre of the composition, on a flat area in front of the cave entrance, the Virgin is depicted kneeling, not lying down as is more usual, with her hands crossed before her breast, venerating Christ, who lies in a low marble manger inside the cave. Behind the manger are two animals warming the Holy Child with their breath. A broad ray of divine light falls upon him from the star.

The subsidiary scenes are arranged symmetrically around and below the cave. Inspired by the Gospels, both canonical and Apocryphal, they frame and supplement the principal subject of the Nativity. At the bottom left sits Joseph, pensive and withdrawn, accompanied by an old shepherd leaning on his stick. At the bottom right is the scene of the bathing of the infant, which comes from the Apocryphal Gospel of James. It consists of the midwife on the right, an elderly woman sitting on the ground holding Christ with one arm and testing the temperature of the water in the bath with her other hand; and a young woman, Salome, on the left pouring water into the bath from a jug. Behind the midwife, a cat and a dog are discernible, though they do not survive in their entirety.

Immediately to the right of the manger, sits a young shepherd wearing a wreath and playing his flute to a group of sheep. A little further up, another shepherd, standing, receives the glad tidings from an angel; and to the left of the peak, a dense crowd of angels is depicted glorifying God. Below them, the three Magi ride up to render homage, their gaze fixed on the guiding star. On the gold ground of the icon, which is crowned with an arch of blue, is the inscription: 'The Nativity of Christ'.

From an iconographical point of view, apart from the Virgin's pose, this icon of the Nativity reflects the tradition of the Cretan School of the fifteenth century, which developed in this period on the basis of Palaeologan models (Chatzidakis 1977, no. 39, pls. 35, 97. Chatzidakis 1986 (1), pp. 78-9. From Byzantium to El Greco 1987, no. 30. Chatzidaki 1993, no. 12).

Apart from the kneeling rather than lying Virgin, both in its general iconographical format and in its details, this Stavronikita icon, which has the same iconographical format as the fresco of the Nativity in the katholikon (1545-6), is more specifically modelled on the scene of the Nativity in an icon of the Deesis and the Dodekaorton in Sarajevo, painted by Nikolaos Ritzos about 1500 (Chatzidakis 1977, pl. 202). It should be noted, however, that the motif of the kneeling Virgin, which is not a common feature of the iconography of the Nativity in the art of the Orthodox east, first appeared in works of the fifteenth-century Cretan School, such as the Nativity in the triptych by Nikolaos Tzafouris (1489-1507) in St Petersburg (Chatzidakis 1974 (2), pl. ΙΖ΄. 1-2). It was from this tradition that Theophanis took the iconographical type of the kneeling Virgin, which he used not only in this icon from the Dodekaorton, but also in his fresco of the Nativity in the katholikon of Stavronikita (Patrinelis - Karakatsani - Theochari 1974, p. 70. Chatzidakis 1986 (1), p. 71, fig. 83).

Bibliography: Chatzidakis 1969-70, fig. 69. Patrinelis - Karakatsani - Theochari 1974, p. 70, fig. 16. Dodekaorton, no. 2.

Index of exhibits of Monastery of Stavronikita
16th century

The Authentic Greek New Testament Bilingual New Testament I

Icon of the Mother of God and New Testament Reader Promote Greek Learning
Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Learned Freeware


Reference address :